High price for democracy By Irfan Husain

High price for democracy
By Irfan Husain 
Saturday, 18 Sep, 2010

RECENTLY, I saw a deeply disturbing chat show on a private Pakistani channel. 

Sitting as I was in Devizes, I was far from home, but thanks to the wonders of modern communication technology, I was able to watch a re-run of a chat show that reflected all the confusion, ignorance and prejudice that is so widespread in Pakistan today. 

The popular host set the tone of the discussion by declaring that it was unthinkable that the present government, and especially the president, should be allowed to finish their constitutional term. Basically, he wanted his guests to give their scenarios for swift regime change. Arcane phrases like the ‘Kakar formula’ and the ‘Bangladesh formula’ were bandied about. Both these, of course, are models for military intervention. 

Only one of the four guests had the common sense to reject the host’s repeated claim about a ‘vacuum’ in the country. He pointed out that there were constitutional provisions that permitted the early removal of a government or a president: a vote of no confidence could be tabled, and/or impeachment proceedings launched against Zardari. 

The others (including the host), however, were dismissive of such legal niceties. Short of actually calling for the army to move in, they demanded a quick change in the political set-up, with one loud guest suggesting that the Supreme Court might give the interim government two years before calling fresh elections, instead of the constitutional limit of three months. Does he know something we don’t? 

As the only sensible person on the panel pointed out, the so-called Kakar formula came into being when there was a deadlock between the two major political parties, and the prime minister was at loggerheads with the president. Gen Kakar, the army chief at the time, was called in to arbitrate. He asked for both the prime minister and the president to resign, followed by general elections in three months. 

In the present case, however, there is no deadlock between either the presidency and the government, or the two main political parties. What seems to be driving this demand for change is the angst among the chattering classes, whipped up by the media. This is not to suggest that the present dispensation is a model of good governance and probity. The truth is that the government should accept much of the blame for the flak it is getting, especially over its handling of the flood disaster. 

Having said this, it is also a fact that no government in the world could have been prepared to deal with a natural catastrophe of this dimension. Our bureaucracy, not very efficient at the best of times, simply was unable to cope. And our feudals have connived to save their own lands with the help of local officials. But they would have done this no matter who had been sitting in the presidency. When it comes to guarding their self-interest, nobody is more ferociously protective. 

Of course much of the discussion on the chat show was about allegations of corruption. The angry guest declared loudly that in the PPP’s earlier stint in power, Asif Zardari had skimmed off $4bn, and this time, he had made $12bn. Needless to say, he gave no source for these figures, nor did the host ask him to substantiate his claim. 

In most countries, such wild allegations would have been the subject of a major libel suit. But given our weak defamation laws, and the sad state of the judiciary, nobody even thinks of taking legal action against a person who has made such an accusation, or the chat show host and the TV channel for permitting these unverified charges to be aired. 

None of this should suggest that I hold any brief for Zardari or the government. But I do respect their mandate. As I reply to all the readers who fulminate against them in emails to me: “Vote the rascals out in the next election.” One problem is that in Pakistan, elected governments have a short shelf-life: after around two years, the knives are out for them, and the media begins to bay for blood. Military dictators last far longer. Few accusations of poor governance and corruption dog their open-ended tenures. 

So while this government should certainly be criticised for not doing enough to end the power shortage the country has been suffering from, we should not forget that during Musharraf’s nine years in power, hardly a single megawatt was added to the electricity grid. And while rumours of corruption did the rounds in the drawing rooms of the chattering classes, few of them were picked up by the media. Now, of course, it’s open season on Zardari & Co. Returning to the studio discussion, the angry gent made the startling assertion that the appointment of a new American ambassador to Pakistan signalled a “victory for Holbrooke against Hillary Clinton”, and indicated that Washington had withdrawn its support from this government. How he came to this conclusion will forever remain a mystery, but it does underline the depths of inanity plumbed in the discussion. 

While most of the programme caused me to shake my head in wonder and bafflement, I was deeply saddened to see the stance taken by one participant. I refer here to Iqbal ‘Groovy’ Hyder, the ex-PPP senator and minister. To see my old friend holding forth on the need to use any means to oust the present lot was very depressing. While I respect his democratic credentials and the role he has played to defend human rights in Pakistan, I was shocked to see him advocating the overthrow of a legally formed government. 

Now Iqbal is perfectly at liberty to criticise this government. As an old PPP member, I can see why he has turned against his old party. The graft and incompetence of this government must be deeply painful for him to behold. Its lack of principles and repeated gaffes are a far cry from what old PPP stalwarts like him would wish to see. 

However, there is a difference between being critical of Zardari and wanting to get rid of him at any cost. Putting up with him for the rest of his term might seem a bitter pill to swallow, but nobody said attaining a working democracy was easy.


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